Chicago's Rise Against arrived late to its 2002 show at New Orleans' Shim Sham Club, where a handful of people showed up to see the melodic, socially and politically conscious punk band just before the release of its breakthrough album Revolutions Per Minute. "It was back in the van and trailer days," says singer/guitarist Tim McIlrath. Ten years later, the band broke off from its massive arena tour to play an intimate gig at House of Blues.
"Everyone was telling us, 'There's not much of an all-ages punk scene in New Orleans. There's not a lot of clubs to play. You're too big for House of Blues, too small for the Superdome. You can't even fit.' We roll with two semis and two buses. You can't fit that in the French Quarter," he says. "We parked our trucks in the Superdome parking lot, rented vans, and took whatever gear we had and played House of Blues. It was the smallest show we played in probably five or six years."
That tour followed 2011's Endgame, which includes the single "Help Is on the Way," inspired by McIlrath's time working alongside activists in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil disaster.
"We got to hear a lot of stories that night from people and the crowd after the show," he says. "We got to walk around and get a little perspective on that song and the journey it took us all on and bring it back to the city that birthed that."
The band's latest effort is The Black Market, its fifth album on a major label (Interscope). Rise Against emerged from Chicago's hardcore punk scene with a politically and socially charged voice, with McIlrath's acerbic clarion calls to action and emotional spitfire — the kind of band that scoffs at "the music industry" and steadfastly defends DIY.
"I didn't expect to be the punk band defending major labels, that's for sure," McIlrath says, laughing. "It was never something we had planned for. It was something we took head on and jumped on the opportunity. It's not just great for our band and who we are, but it's great for the messages we've been trying to pass down from our favorite punk bands to a much wider scene. Therein lies the challenge: to go from playing in a punk and hardcore scene, which is open to a lot of ideas, to playing a 'shut up and play' commercial scene."
The Black Market's first single, "I Don't Want to Be Here Anymore," is as much a song about a failing relationship as it is response to gun violence fatigue and the hopelessness of being witness to seemingly constant murders in the barrage of breaking news headlines in the band's hometown. Black Market is similarly introspective, broadening McIlrath's visceral stabs at themes of death, apathy and frustration with the world at large. McIlrath doesn't hold back on "The Eco-Terrorist in Me," in which he sings, "When it all comes down, will you say you did everything you could?"
"We came into the major-label world in an industry that is different than the one Steve Albini was writing about in the early '90s, than the one with the labels that ruined our favorite bands, like Jawbreaker, and chewed up and spit back out," he says. "We came in with our fists up, like, 'Hey, we're music fans, we've been reading the 'zines, we know all about you people, and you're not going to change this and that.' ... We came here looking for a fight. We never found that fight. We found, 'Do whatever you want, and do it on our dime.'"